'Sulk' (40th Anniversary Special Edition)
When asked to describe the sound of the second Associates album, their delightfully quotable lead singer Billy Mackenzie cheekily opted for calling it as being like 'ABBA on acid.'
It's one of those lines that have never been able to unhear, one that's led to imagining how that perfect pop of the famous Swedish quartet would sound if twisted and distorted through such a hallucinatory drug experience. How, bewildering, intense, beautiful, fucked and fucked up and occasionally unnerving it would all be. And then, how sometimes I feel that it may possibly sound just like 'Sulk' by Associates.
This lovingly assembled 40 Anniversary Deluxe Edition of 'Sulk' (featuring the remastered album, rarities, non-album singles, b-sides, Peel sessions, and a live performance), is a testament to how far ahead and apart from any competition The Associates were in 1982.
The fact that is a document of the moment that the band permeated the mainstream just added to the great thrill. A reminder of that year, of those alluring Top of the Pops performances (more later), McKenzie smiling knowingly as if to say, 'no, we can't believe it either...' as they toyed with everything we thought pop music could do.
The Dundee-born duo of Alan Rankine (the musician) and Billy McKenzie (the singer), first met in 1976 and swiftly struck up a musical and songwriting partnership. They were initially known as The Ascorbic Ones before becoming the even less welcoming Mental Torture. Later, as The Associates, they made their audacious debut recording in 1979 with a version of Bowie's 'Boys Keep Swinging', a single released on a small independent label just weeks after the original had slipped out of the charts. It got them noticed (including Bowie, whose team chastised them for not seeking permission to release the song but also praised the single's b-side... ), they had started to make waves.
In retrospect, their edgy and beguiling debut album ('The Affectionate Punch', 1980) and the unrestrained and experimental compilation of all the singles that they released throughout 1981 ('Fourth Drawer Down') seemed to show artists getting ready, refining who they were as if it were all leading towards something far more important. And in early 1982, it became apparent what that was:
"... 'Party Fears Two' sounded as if it had been beamed down from another planet, there's no other way to describe it. There has been no other pop record like it before ...or since.'
Tom Doyle, author of 'The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy MacKenzie'
Many will cite their Top of the Pops performance of 'Party Fears Two' in March '82 (Billy in a fastened-up trench coat and wearing a beret, Rankine dressed like a Samurai, chopsticks in hair, playing a banjo), as the moment that they first came into contact with the intoxicating world of The Associates as they performed the single that was just hovering outside the Top 40. There was the introduction, the piano motif which (and let's not forget McKenzie's description), seemed to take Benny Anderson's signature sound and mould it into something far more elegant and a little stranger. There's the gloriously mundane opening line ('I'll have a shower and then call my brother up...') that leads into a tale of neurosis, paranoia and social anxiety so aptly summed up with by '...the alcohol loves you, whilst turning you blue', before the unrestrained falsetto of 'Awake Me...' So otherworldly, I felt sorry for the act that had to appear directly afterward.*
One of the many delights on the additional discs that accompany the album on this Special Edition is the demo of 'I Never Will' , which is basically 'Party Fears Two' before those three words were even in the song and were instead: '...don't make me do what the atheists do...' It's a wonderfully peculiar listen.
With the album itself, there's something delightfully contrary about how both 'Party Fears Two' and the follow-up chart hit 'Club Country' (a smartly veiled criticism of the showy New Romantic London club scene), only appear three-quarters of the way through 'Sulk' as if insisting that listeners get acquainted with the breadth of what the band was now capable of before the gratification of the hits. Equally, for a band that had so much attention directed towards the singer, it is intriguing that 'Sulk' both starts and ends with instrumentals. One thing that is clear on all versions of opener 'Arrogance Gave Him Up' included here is how essential the drumming by the late John Murphy was to the sound of the band, his presence on the time at the much-bootlegged show in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands (included here), is phenomenal.
Although the live, demo, and radio session versions of these songs show what a remarkable bunch of musicians The Associates were, it was album producer Mike Hedges who was tasked with turning the gloriously madcap ideas into a coherent shape. As well as responding to Mackenzie's more peculiar requests ('Make it sounds like Egypt', 'Make it sound like grass'), he also brought his experience of working with The Cure and Bauhaus and was keen to experiment.
Hedge's work with the doyens of dark pop may have had some impact on the album's first song: 'No.' The piano seems to be playing in a (probably haunted), abandoned theatre, the layers of synths add to the gothic melodrama, whilst Mackenzie's echoey and disturbed vocals ( 'Tear a strip from your dress/
Wrap my arms in it'), create a bewitching experience. Another delirium dictates 'Nude Spoons' - a cacophonous soundtrack to an LSD-inspired dream that Mackenzie had once had. Although, with lines like '...I'm glad I had this vital heart attack/ It clears psoriasis', the dream feels more like a nightmare.
Although David Bowie never recorded the allegedly cursed torch song 'Gloomy Sunday' the version here seems to imagine the universe where that song exists, Mackenzie emulating his Berlin-era croon as he delivers a song with the bleakest of reputations... (It was written by Hungarian Rezs? Seress, the English translation was made famous by Billie Holiday in 1941. After the composer killed himself in 1968 the BBC decided that they could only play instrumental versions of a piece, which had now gained the less than flattering nickname as 'The Hungarian Suicide Song').
The inclusion of a live version of fan favourite' 'Skipping' shows how the song had developed on its way to the final version that we know. The raw and jangling version recorded in the Netherlands in 1981 could sit comfortably along the funkier output of several other young Scottish hopefuls, but the final version is something far more mysterious and elegant creation. On Record, Rankine uses acoustic instead of electric guitar and Mackenzie, (in Berlin Bowie mode again), singing some of his most cryptic lyrics. It is a dramatic production.
Of course, none of this fragile brilliance could last. Rankine would later say: 'You can tell by the time of (the TV appearances for), '18 Carat Love Affair', Bill was bored...I think that he was saying to himself, "God do I have to do this to this camera for the next fifteen years?" ' Then, on the verge of a large US tour, Mackenzie decided that he didn't want to face the live dates, whether it was stage fright or self-doubt he claimed that he would prefer to just make records. Rankine strongly disagreed and the band split in October 1982. Mackenzie continued to use the band's name for the rest of the decade but it was The Associates only in name. His 1992 album, the peculiarly sleek 'Outernational' would be the only solo Billy Mackenzie album released during his lifetime. The poignant and tender 'Beyond the Sun' was released posthumously after his tragic suicide in 1997. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking record.
It's still bewildering that, within the space of just nine months, The Associates had made their astonishing debut, released their greatest record, and then disintegrated so quickly. You may speculate that there was far, far more that Mackenzie and Rankine could have achieved together, that it was all over far too soon. But what they produced in 1982 was peerless and 40 years on, with the help of this meticulously compiled release, the superlatives just keep on coming.
*it was Adrian Gurvitz with 'Classic', which was no great loss, really